On a bright afternoon last fall, Jonathan Fisher sank into a seat at Disneyland and wracked his brain.
Things were seemingly going well. Earlier that month he had turned up at Jeopardy!’s Culver City studio to play against 38-day champion Matt Amodio, an opponent Fisher thought would defeat him so swiftly that he could get back to his Orange County home in time for lunch. Instead, Fisher toppled Amodio—and then spent the rest of the day winning four more games. The next morning, he returned to the studio and once again swept the slate, making him a 10-day champion with a whopping $230,100 and counting in winnings. He also earned an invitation to come back in two weeks and keep playing.
To unwind in the interim, Fisher and his partner headed for a visit to Disneyland. But with his next five-game taping just days ahead, he found himself at a table in the Magic Kingdom pondering an odious task: He had to come up with five new quirky personal anecdotes to recount after the show’s first commercial break in case his winning streak continued.
“That was probably the most grueling part for me, trying to come up with, like, ‘OK, what is interesting about my life?’” Fisher says. “It’s a lot harder than it seems, especially when you have to keep coming back.”
This has been the season of super champions on Jeopardy!: First came Amodio, then Fisher (who capped his run at 11 victories and 12 personal anecdotes), and then 40-time champion Amy Schneider. The current champion is Mattea Roach, whose streak stands at 22 consecutive victories as of Wednesday evening. Their Culver City residencies have been punctuated by other, shorter streaks, to the point that just 36 of this season’s 158 non-tournament episodes (22.8 percent) haven’t featured a contestant who would reach four or more victories—a stat that promises an all-timer of a Tournament of Champions when the players return to face one another and a handful of last season’s big winners this November.
It also means that this season has seen the same contestants introduce new fun facts about themselves with hosts Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik day after day. With her victories running into a fifth consecutive week, Roach says she’s had to resort to asking her parents for fresh fodder.
“Especially starting this week, it was getting very difficult for me to come up with stuff,” says Roach, who has gabbed about her childhood nickname, a slow-motion car crash, and her high school debate coach. “My parents especially were really good at remembering things because they’ve obviously known me longer than anybody else. They know all of my childhood silly stories, so that was kind of how I came up with things.”
New Jeopardy! contestants receive a questionnaire before heading to the studio. It begins: “Congratulations! You’re booked for the show! Now you are going to need some anecdotes for your interview segment with our host. Who knows how many interviews you’ll have: It could be from 1 to 74!” Seventy-four is something of a sacred number on Jeopardy!; that’s how many episodes Jennings won in 2004 before falling in game no. 75 to Nancy Zerg.
The questionnaire asks for five “interesting facts” from each contestant, followed by answers to 32 of what the show calls “leading questions.” Some of these questions are straightforward: What is your first memory of Jeopardy!? Where have you traveled? Others invite zanier responses: What is the one mistake that no one will let you forget? Have you ever had any problems occur because of a language misunderstanding? Have you ever had a terrible job interview? Date?
If you were on Jeopardy!, what would your contestant interview story be?— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) April 22, 2022
Once the day’s crop of contestants arrives on set, Jeopardy!’s team of contestant coordinators leads them through a morning orientation that includes hashing out their anecdotes. The coordinators play the role of host and gently offer suggestions for improvements, perhaps to cut out clunky or confusing details or to keep their stories brief.
Contestants have some say in which of their tales makes the cut. Roach used her first—and, if she were to have lost, what would have been her only—segment to talk about her dad’s jean jacket, which she now owns. “I knew it would mean a lot to him to have that been the thing that I talked about,” she says. She intentionally avoided discussing anything related to her academic and debate-team successes: “I didn’t want to have my one story be about something really amazing that I had accomplished and then lose catastrophically in my first game. So my initial set of anecdotes, I was kind of like, OK, I’m not going to be deliberately boring, but I don’t want them to be anything that could possibly be read as boastful.”
Besides, Roach says, not all of the questionnaire fodder applied to her: In response to the question of how the 23-year-old tutor settled on her career, she says, “I was like, Well, I don’t really have a career. The answer is at some point I will figure it out.”
The show’s Q&A segments have a way of taking off online. They make for a strange interruption to an otherwise blazing-fast half hour of trivia, with many contestants seemingly shell-shocked at the prospect of engaging in banter with the host. “Some contestants are like, ‘This is not the small talk round,” Roach says. “I’m not being tested on my ability to do small talk.”
Other players capture the popular imagination for their, shall we say, unusual talents. Last week, contestant Julian Glander made waves for his recital of the alphabet in reverse (notably, not backward):
.gnitseretni ... saw tahT pic.twitter.com/nvJuppbaqC— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) April 29, 2022
And some have used their time to showcase unique accessories, like when Louisa Kreider revealed her, uh, homemade earrings in 2009:
Still others have gained internet fame for the host’s participation—as happened to Susan Cole back in 2016. Alex Trebek was famed—and, at least by contestants, feared—for his occasional scoffing at these personal tidbits, sometimes capped off with a withering “good for you.” Cole was on the receiving end of Trebek’s side eye when the storied host asked her about her stated musical interest.
“Her favorite type of music is something I’ve never heard of, but it doesn’t sound like fun,” Trebek said.
“I think it’s very fun,” Cole replied. “It’s called nerdcore hip-hop. It’s—”
“Nerdcore hip-hop,” the host interjected.
“Yes,” Cole said. “It’s people who identify as nerdy, rapping about the things they love: video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners, you know. It’s really catchy and fun.”
Trebek nodded, and then offered thoughts that have become so iconic they’re now used as flair on the Jeopardy! subreddit: “Losers, in other words,” he replied.
“During the preparation with the producers, they had said while looking at my five [facts], ‘Oh, Alex likes Viking things, so he’ll probably choose your story about seeing a Viking ship,” Cole remembers. “Then he asked me the nerdcore hip-hop question, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, sure!’ and I tried to say something interesting about it.”
The moment spread immediately, with publications far and wide writing up the exchange as a fresh example of Trebek’s habit of owning nerds. Cole says TMZ somehow tracked down her phone number and called her the morning after the episode aired in search of official comment. “I guess I should have known he would be snarky,” she says. “That’s his edge, that’s his thing. I didn’t really feel like he was being mean to me. If you see him interview other people—unless he’s talking about musk oxen, he’s never warm. He wasn’t a cuddly interviewer.” Years later, the clip continues to make the rounds; Cole says she saw it pop up on TikTok a few weeks ago.
And, as it turned out, nerdcore hip-hop wasn’t her only encounter with Jeopardy! banter: Cole won that game as well as the next two, and in the end really did get to tell Trebek about the time she saw a preserved Viking ship. It’s not entirely unfortunate that she fell in game no. 4, she says—her fifth anecdote, about a movie-guessing game she used to play with her sister, was a real dud.
With his games stretching across nearly six months, Jennings has said that coming up with fresh fodder to discuss with Trebek proved to be a real challenge—so much so that he started to get creative. “After my first round of shows, I was out of fun stories,” Jennings told Vulture in 2020. “But every week, Jeopardy! would call and be like, ‘You’re taping again next week, we need more stories for your cards!’ I didn’t have any other stories to share. I’m gonna admit that sometimes I’d make things up. I wouldn’t pretend to be a hero or anything, but you can put anything on those cards. The show doesn’t fact-check that stuff. Alex would look at my card and be like, ‘Hey, Ken, it says here you really like airline food.’ And I’d be like, ‘I do Alex, I kind of think it’s a fun treat!’”
While getting into the upper reaches of winning streaks means that the well of factoids starts to run dry, Roach says, it does have its advantages. “The thing that’s nice about getting into the higher numbers in terms of a run is like, at a certain point, I do think that you’re able to make up anecdotes that are basically just talking about how you’ve won a bunch of games,” she says. Indeed, what could be more relevant to Jeopardy! than having already won double-digit episodes of Jeopardy!?
Having spent some time watching Jennings at work, Roach says that the Q&As present one of the biggest challenges of hosting the show. The hosts know the basic contour of the anecdote, but it’s up to them to keep three back-to-back chats with players—who might be nervous, or want to talk about their seven cats, or both—moving smoothly. “Both Ken and Mayim genuinely seemed interested in the contestants,” she says. “I think Ken especially—I’m not sure if it’s just from him being a previous contestant himself and being more comfortable with the bantering back-and-forth elements of it, but he definitely seems to ask a lot of follow-up questions.”
Fisher confesses that as a Jeopardy! viewer, he’s not much of a fan of the contestant interview segment. “It seems so removed to me from the actual gameplay of Jeopardy!,” he says. “It’s a little bit like paying for your sins. It’s like, ‘OK, we’ll do the interview and then we’ll get back to the fun stuff.’”
But having been on both sides of the stage, he’s begrudgingly come to understand the appeal. “I think it goes back to Alex Trebek,” he says. “He could be kind of saucy with people and I think that was part of what people liked about him—that he presented as being very calm and straightforward and intelligent, and then he could throw in a little zinger there. And I wonder if that’s part of the interest in people watching the show, seeing people who have this wealth of knowledge and trivia and then getting a little reminder that, oh yeah, they’re people too. Especially trivia juggernauts like Matt and Amy or even Ken. You can get a glimpse behind all the stuff that they know and see that they’re real people, too.”